I am reminded of the old weather adage:
Grey skies in morning
Riders ride mourning
Or, as the Good Book has it, “Ask and ye shall receive.” Yesterday I fretted about the extremes of the weather and this morning we wake to an overcast sky that threatens rain. The weather report confirms that there is a system moving through that will dash cool water over our quest.
Cocoon all of our valuables in Zip-Loc baggies. Unpack the rain gear and snug up all the zippers. Then, with tears in our eyes, we ride down to the waterfront and hitch a ride on the bike ferry across to the southern shore. There, much to my delight, I see two storks dancing along the ridge of a house roof. I quickly lock my telephoto lens on the camera and stalk them. I fire off a few shots before something spooks them and they flap away on great white wings.
All of which reminds me: yesterday I saw the first hawk I have seen in nearly three weeks in Austria. It was gliding upriver as we approached Grein. What disturbs me is that in the six days we've been cycling through Austria, this is the first raptor of any kind, hawks, eagles, or owls that I have seen. I did see a stuffed eagle, tacked to the wall of a shed (which made me extremely cross). I would hate to think that people are shooting these magnificent animals in this country.
As far as the weather goes, today is certainly the finest day. The threat of rain hangs over us as we head east, but it doesn't materialize until after we reach our hotel. The trail is cool, the riding is easy, and we move through beautiful countryside. The mountains had closed in around Grein, and for most of the way the river is narrower and flowing quickly. The Danube has carved a path through this mountainous region, the Strudengau. At a bend in the river we can see the old fortifications of the Burg Werfenstein, a small castle perfectly positioned to shell ships coming upriver. From here, the possessor of the castle could charge a toll to use the river, or close it down entirely.
We cross the river at Persenbeug. The locks of the dam are readily visible from the bridge and I am able to get a few nice shots of a tug and barge. The length of some of the Danube barges is phenomenal. They must be well over 200 feet long, each with a powerful tug turning up the water astern. When grinding away uphill, these tugs sound quite a bit like a taxiing Boeing 747. A wall of jet noise bounces off the ridges. The barges ride very low in the water, bows just barely clearing the white mustache churned up under their noses. I find myself growing obsessed with the barges, taking far more photos than I will ever need.
Persenbeug looks like an interesting town, but with dark clouds dogging our tire tracks, we decide to sprint for Marbach, our home for the evening. Gottsdorf has a pretty little church spire with an onion-shaped dome. We ride through more corn; when we stop I can hear the wind swirling around the cobs, stirring an eerie dirge. Ghosts of corn popped, perhaps.
There are more apple trees as well, limbs sagging under the weight of ripening fruit. Now here is a question: how can a country that has so many apple trees – you can barely sit down without making applesauce – not have a cider industry? I am so desperate for a cold glass of cider, condensation drawing long ribbons of wet down its side, that I could just scream. Yet every menu I look at, every store I inventory, misses this critical antidote to the hot summer day. How can this be with all of these apples?
Marbach is a short ride. We stop just before we reach our hotel to have lunch at a restaurant specializing in Italian and Greek food. The pizza is marvelous. I think that only Grace is let down by the food: she springs for the child-approved Wiener Schnitzel but this came up more gristle than good.
Our hotel in Marbach is pleasant enough. After a shower and short rest, we decide to hike into town and see the sights. Two minutes later we are ready to head back. Ah, but I jest. In fact it takes us 10 minutes to hike into Marbach. Much less time to see the sights. Marbach doesn't get much of an entry in our guidebook and it is easy to see why. The church is a cozy, small parish chapel, peaceful and undisturbed on this dark afternoon. A flight of stone steps leads up a steep hill behind it. For reasons that escape reason, we decide to climb them. Knees knocking, thighs thumping, we labor heavenward. Finally we break out in a clearing above the church where, saints be praised, I see TWO barges swimming into the frame of a smashingly good photo. So it was all worth the effort.
Then it began to rain. Back to the hotel through a strengthening drizzle. In the parking lot behind the hotel, a large group of cycle tourists are loading their bikes into a trailer and climbing aboard a tour bus. What is this? The Danube mini-cycle tour? I scoff at them, curling my lip in exactly the same way as I've seen the experienced cyclists using on us neophytes. We limp along, barely maintaining 15 kilometers per hour while they flash around us, barely breaking a sweat at 30. But at least we are riding bicycles, not the seats of a tour bus. It's nice to feel superior to someone on this route.
The skies clear by sunset, with all omens pointing to another hot one tomorrow. But this will be the last long ride of our tour – the final ride into Vienna is mostly enjoyed from a train carriage – so perhaps the knowledge that we are almost done will give us strength for the last pull.